Iowa goes for their second straight nationally televised upset of a ranked opponent tonight, as they take on the slumping Badgers in the Kohl Center.
Iowa (16-13, 8-8) at Wisconsin (22-7, 11-5)
Time: 8:00 PM CT
Location: Kohl Center
Line: Wisconsin -11
Note: All numbers are scaled so that zero is equal to the Division I average in each category. Anything higher than zero means that a team is better than average in that category. Meanwhile, anything less than zero means that a team is below average in that category. Lastly, all numbers, unless otherwise specified, are from Big Ten play.
When Iowa has the ball, it's a battle of the #47 Kenpom-ranked offense against the #15 defense. Limiting our sample to games played within the Big Ten conference, we see an Iowa offense, whose recent improvement has moved them up to #8 in the conference when you adjust for difficulty of schedule, averaging 1.14 adjusted points per possession (PPP). Wisconsin's defense, on the other hand, has been the #1 defense in the Big Ten, surrendering just 0.91 adjusted PPP in conference play. It should be noted, however, that the Badgers have lost four out of their last five games, and have also allowed their opponent to score more than a point per trip in those four out of five games. It should also probably be noted that Wisconsin has only lost once at home this year.
Judging by the four factors, Wisconsin looks to have a pretty large advantage on defense, besting Iowa in three of the four of the categories on the season. Turnovers worry me the most on this end of the court, since this game is in the Kohl Center against what appears to be one of the best turnover-forcing Wisconsin teams since at least 2010. Ethan Happ is one to watch, as he is 11th in the country in steals and first in the Big Ten. Iowa loves to dump the ball into the post to guys like Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl, and if the Hawkeye wings telegraph or are lazy with their entry passes, Happ will make them pay.
Same thing when Iowa decides to run the occasional pick and roll.
Transition is also something keep an eye on, as Iowa's offense is the quickest in the Big Ten and one of the most up-tempo in the country. Wisconsin obviously likes to slow things down, but if the Hawkeyes can get out and run against Wisconsin (who is middle-of-the-pack when it comes to limiting transition field goal attempts this season), easy baskets would take the pressure off of having to perfectly execute their half-court offense against a stingy Badger defense.
We should also look to three-point shooting and offensive rebounding. Because while Wisconsin is eighth in the country and first in the conference in contesting two-point shots, they are 308th nationally and 13th in the Big Ten in three-point defense. Despite holding opponents to a below average number of three-point attempts this year, that has been negated by the fact that Badger opponents have connected on 38% of their threes, including 41% (!) in conference games. That is unheard of in Madison, and if Iowa can hit from distance, they could hang around in this one.
Additionally, offensive rebounds may be another advantage for the Hawkeyes on this end of the floor. Wisconsin isn't far off from the average in this category, but Iowa has proven to be pretty strong on the offensive glass this season. If the threes aren't falling, but Iowa's post players are keeping possessions alive and scoring second chance points, the Hawkeyes could also hang around in this one. But if they can do both, we could potentially see them win their second road game over a ranked opponent.
That being said, I am trying not to sound overly-optimistic here. It seems like every time I get too positive in these previews, Iowa's offense lays an egg. On the flip side, when I get overly pessimistic, the Maryland game happens. I think Iowa has some potential advantages on this end of the court, and Wisconsin's defense has had some issues as of late. However, this game is on the road in the only Big Ten venue that Peter Jok has never won a game. This Badger team is also very senior-heavy and their defense also has plenty of advantages of their own. As a result, I am going to go with experience at home over youth on the road.
Switching sides of the ball, Kenpom ranks Wisconsin's offense 34th nationally and Iowa 122nd. In the Big Ten, once you account for competition, Wisconsin possesses the fifth best offense, scoring an adjusted 1.15 PPP. Iowa, on the other hand, has the 11th-best, giving up 0.99 PPP.
On offense, the style of play is typical Wisconsin. They are 332nd in the country in terms of possessions per game, and 338th when it comes to average possession length. But this is a really odd Wisconsin team from the standpoint that this year's version isn't shooting the ball particularly well in Big Ten play. Not only are they shooting a below average percentage on their two-point field goals this year, but they are below the norm when it comes to burying shots from downtown. That will probably change against Iowa, of course, but those are the stats, nonetheless.
Mostly what has kept this Badger offense afloat in Big Ten play has been their offensive rebounds and their lack of turnovers. The latter will be interesting, since Iowa's now up to #2 in the Big Ten in not only forcing turnovers, but also in steals. The former, of course, is probably Wisconsin's biggest advantage. Because while Iowa may be great at hauling in offensive boards this year, they have been abysmal on the defensive glass. And that could very well mean that Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ eats Iowa up with second chance points tonight.
And speaking of Ethan Happ, he's notable because the offense frequently runs through him in the post. In Big Ten play, he takes by far the most shots of anyone on the team when he's on the floor, and he also hands out the most assists. Essentially, when the ball goes in the post, Happ has the skill set to back his man down and score.
But he also sees the court well enough to find an open three-point shooter on the perimeter or hit the man cutting to the rim.
What I am interested to see is how often Iowa uses their zone defense against Wisconsin. I didn't chart the Maryland game, but I don't recall a single man-to-man possession (feel free to correct me if I am wrong) in that game. It wasn't perfect and Iowa gave up a lot of open looks from threes, but it did force a lot of turnovers in the second half. Iowa's zone may be a good way to try and limit Happ and Hayes' effectiveness inside, and get some hands in the passing lane to break up cutters. And if Wisconsin is struggling to make their threes, the zone defense may be an advantage for Iowa.
That being said, the zone doesn't alleviate my concerns on this end of the court. I am still worried about Iowa losing shooters like Bronson Koenig or Zak Showalter, and Wisconsin's bigs killing Iowa on the offensive glass. And that's not even mentioning my concerns about Happ and Nigel Hayes getting guys like Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl in foul trouble. That could also be a real issue. Even with their shooting struggles in Big Ten play this year, I still have to go with Wisconsin's offense at home against Iowa's defense.
Players to Know
Note: The horizontal axis represents a player's usage rate, while the vertical axis represents a player's offensive rating. The logo size represents playing time (bigger means more time on the court). This chart should tell us how involved in the offense the player is, how efficient they are in doing so, and in how many minutes per game they accomplish all of this.
Ethan Happ C -- With the senior duo of Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, it's a little surprising that a sophomore is playing the best basketball of anyone on the Wisconsin team, but here we are. According to Kenpom's Player of the Year standings, he's the sixth-best player in the nation and second in the Big Ten behind Caleb Swanigan. He's averaging 15 points, nine rebounds, three assists, and just shy of three steals and two blocks in 30 minutes a night against Big Ten competition this year. Happ is Wisconsin's best high volume, high efficiency guy, attempting the most shots of anyone on the team when he's on the floor, 80% of which come at the rim, according to Hoop-Math. In fact, outside of Purdue, there probably is no other Big Ten team that posts up as often, thanks to Happ.
On top of his scoring, Iowa will also need to worry about him visiting the free throw line, getting second chance points off offensive rebounds, or finding open three-point shooters or cutters when the Hawkeyes send a double-team. On defense, he also sucks up a ton of rebounds, blocks a good amount of shots, and picks his opponent's pocket frequently. Tyler Cook and Cordell Pemsl will likely battle him all night long. Hopefully they can stay out of foul trouble.
Nigel Hayes PF -- Hayes is having another good year as a senior, scoring nearly 14 points in 35 minutes per game in Big ten play. The only drawback to his game, is that his efficiency just hasn't been the same since Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker left, and he was forced to be one of the go-to guys on the roster. His three-point shot hasn't been the same since that 2015 season, and while he's very good at taking guys off the dribble and bullying them at the rim, the fact that nearly 40% of his field goal attempts over the past two seasons have been two-point jumpers, it makes sense that his eFG% has been understandably low. These are tough shots.
It may take him more shots than he would like to score his 14 points per game, but he will still give the Badgers 14 points regardless. Outside of his shooting, he's a solid rebounder and good defender who never gets called for fouls. I think Ahmad Wagner's mix of size, strength, and athleticism is a good defensive match-up for Hayes, so long as he can stay out of foul trouble. Otherwise, Dom Uhl and Nicholas Baer may also be pretty good matches.
Bronson Koenig G -- Koenig is the third member of this Wisconsin three-headed Hydra, dropping 13 points in 33 minutes every game against Big Ten foes. In most systems, he is a traditional shooting guard, but in Wisconsin's slow-it-down offense, he runs the point and sets up the offense. His assist rate is much lower than your average point guard, and the assists tend to come more from Happ and Hayes drawing attention, but Koenig is a deadly shooter that Iowa can't afford to lose. He can pull up and shoot unassisted by his teammates, but he can also run off a host of screens and bury the triple.
Outside of that, his other strengths are that he rarely loses the ball and he's a solid overall defender. I'll be curious to see who shoots better from deep, him or Jordan Bohannon.
Zak Showalter G -- Showalter is a 6'3" 185 lb. shooting guard, who came to Wisconsin as a preferred walk-on, but earned Jarrod Uthoff's scholarship when Mr. Uthoff took his talents to Iowa City. Averaging eight points in 30 minutes a night against Big Ten teams, Showalter has a knack for finding the hole in the defense and cutting to the basket, and he also has the ability to attack his defender off the dribble. Most importantly, he worries me because he is shooting 38% from three-point range this season, where he takes more than half of his shots.
On defense, he's also the second best pick-pocket on the team, after Happ. But it's still his ability to knock down threes that worries me, considering Iowa's defense has a knack for allowing wide open looks from outside this season.
Vitto Brown F -- After a breakout junior year, Brown seems to have taken a step back as a senior. Scoring nine points in 23 minutes against Big Ten teams last season, those numbers are down to six in 20. Most of his numbers are pretty comparable to last year, but his three-point shooting has tanked (40% last season to just 30% this season) and his turnover rate has ballooned by almost 10 percentage points, which is pretty remarkable, but in a bad way. Even with those struggles, Brown is still Wisconsin's fifth starter (and fourth senior one at that), and he has been in the starting lineup all season long. Expect a lot of jump shots for him, and hopefully the ones that are worth three points don't fall.
The Rest -- Wisconsin relies heavily on their starters, who account for 74% of their total minutes per game. D'Mitrik Trice and Khalil Iverson are their two reserves who play the most minutes. Trice is a true freshman point guard who plays 17 minutes per game in place of Koenig or right alongside him, and is making 45% of his threes on 67 attempts this season. Iverson is a sophomore freak athlete, who plays 15 minutes per game at both forward positions. He's an outstanding defender, but he isn't quite polished on offense yet. As you may recall, he can attack the rim and throw down a thunderous dunk.
But the rest of his offensive game still needs some work.
As for the remainder of their depth, Jordan Hill and Charles Thomas are the only other guys to have seen action in all but a couple of Big Ten games this year. Hill is a junior and another ball-handler, but is virtually invisible on offense when he's in the game. Thomas, a sophomore, is a lot more active when he's on the court, but he turns the ball over frequently and he's not a great shooter at this point in his career.
What Kenpom Thinks
Rankings: Iowa #71, Wisconsin #21
Projected Outcome: Iowa 66 (15%), Wisconsin 78 (85%)
Projected Points Per Possession: Iowa 0.99, Wisconsin 1.16
Even though Wisconsin is in a bit of a funk, Kenpom's numbers still include the first 24 games in which the Badgers went 21-3. As Iowa fans, though, we know that when a good team is in a funk down the stretch of the season, it doesn't matter how many points you are favored by, you could still lose.
The keys for Iowa on the offensive side of the ball are to hit their threes and crash the offensive glass. On defense, I think the key is to take away Happ down low and do their best to close out on perimeter shooters. I think we could see another game in which Iowa plays zone a majority of the time. If those things go well, I think Iowa has a chance to keep it close and even pull the upset.
That being said, I still don't feel comfortable picking Iowa for the upset. I think they have a chance to keep the game close, as this Wisconsin team appears to have a lot more weaknesses than past iterations have had. Despite the recent slump, I think Wisconsin's experience at home will prove to be the difference in this one -- especially if it comes down to the wire.